In the past month, my child has done the following:
- Gone ice skating (twice)
- Met Father Christmas, made reindeer food, and sang with elves at Santa’s Grotto
- Spent the day at a Claire’s Christmas family event, decorating biscuits, making tree decorations and fashioning a papier mache Rudolph
- Been to Disney On Ice
- Been swimming
- Gone to a soft play party
This is on top of the usual weekend activities like doing jigsaw puzzles, playing shop (“Mummy, you be the lady now! You stand there!”), reading books, dressing up as a fairy and playing at being a doctor (I need to break it to my 3-year-old soon that doctors do more than wrap bandages around wrists.)
I don’t know about you, but I’m exhausted just thinking about all that. It’s not even that we were busier than usual over Christmas – this is normal for us. Last summer, we had a couple of months of going to a different fete a week, on top of going to a Big Fish Little Fish kids’ rave and a weekend at Camp Bestival. Non-stop-fun. I think part of the reason we do so much every weekend is because both my husband and I work full time, and we want to cram lots of fun into the time we do spend with our daughter.
But this isn’t about me boasting about how much we do with our daughter – quite the opposite. I actually worry we do too much ‘fun stuff’ with her, and this week, an ex-head teacher has been in the press saying that kids shouldn’t have their days packed with activities, that actually being bored is good for them.
Julie Robinson, the education and training director of the Independent Association of Prep Schools says, “It is all too easy for parents to be sucked into a competitive busyness, ensuring that children are constantly occupied and stimulated. We should not fear boredom however. Quiet, reflective time is just as important as purposeful activity.”
Julie Robinson’s focus is more on parents who arrange loads of extra-curricular activities for their children – piano lessons, dance classes, football practice – but I think her theory applies to parents of younger kids too. From the time my daughter was seven weeks old and I took her to her first Baby Sensory class (and I’m pretty sure she couldn’t even see as far as the green scarf I was waving around above her head, back then) she started a life of being near-constantly entertained. After Baby Sensory, we graduated to Monkey Music classes and Sign and Sign classes. We dropped in on a few Boppin’ Tots classes and a couple of Gymboree sessions (but I refused to join a private members’ club for babies, so we didn’t go very often). Baby massage classes? Yep. Swimming lessons? Of course.
During my entire year off work, on maternity leave, my mini-partner-in-crime and I hit up pretty much every class going. Looking back, this was as much about me keeping busy (and keeping my sanity) as it was about stimulating my child. But there definitely is an unspoken pressure to do these activities. I’m not saying that my mum friends made me feel like I had to do them, more that there was an assumption that you would. Before you even have a child, you’re vaguely aware of Facebook posts by friends who have babies, talking about Jo Jingles or soft play sessions. It seeps into your subconscious that this-is-what-good-mums-do. Leaflets start coming through the door from companies offering classes (THANKS Bounty for selling on my details) and if you go to any baby shows, you’re bombarded by friendly smiley people telling you about Aqua Tots or Little Flippers or Flipping Blippers (I might have made that one up). The message is loud and clear – good mums take their babies to classes.
But is it really necessary? And, actually, is it doing more harm than good?
Dr Mary Bousted, the general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, agrees with Julie Robinson’s comments this week, saying: “A never-ending diet of stimulation, with ferrying to clubs, activities and games is as exhausting for children as it is for their parents. All children need downtime to allow them to make sense of what they have learnt and experienced. And they all need and have the right to be bored to give them the stimulus to be inventive, resourceful and self-reliant – all important life skills. Expecting life to be a roller-coaster of constant entertainment is not a good preparation for the adult world.”
So this weekend, we have no plans. And instead of planning in a trip to a farm or a zoo or the moon, I’m going to keep it low key. Let’s just wake up, take it easy, go for a walk, fit in a couple of useful things like visiting B&Q to buy new lightbulbs and paint, and watch a movie. I think it’ll do all of us some good.